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Useful Curriculum and Unit Planning Tips for Teachers

Find some great curriculum and unit planning tips for teachers in this article.

Curriculum and unit planning are extremely important tasks that teachers do each year. Last night’s #2ndaryELA Twitter chat was packed with information about how teachers plan out their units for the year. Many teachers shared that they were solely responsible for planning their own curriculum, others said that they have been given a set of standards and must find units that teach these standards.

When I am designing a unit I use the backward design model referenced in the Twitter chat many times. I purposely plan out the final assessment so that I know my unit plan will teach the skills for students to successfully complete the assignment. I look at the curriculum standards/expectations provided to me by the government and then decide what is the most engaging method I can use to help students learn.  It is also helpful to look at the big ideas you need to teach i.e. the overall standards/expectations to see exactly what students need to learn by the end of that grade level. If you get caught up on the minor standards/expectations, you could spend an entire semester teaching grammar. I’d rather read The Oatmeal.

Read the curated Twitter chat below to get some good ideas on unit planning, and to see that you are not an island when it comes to unit planning and curriculum mapping.

If you teach middle school check out my free long-range plans (scope and sequence) here.

Q1: Are you responsible for designing your curriculum or are you given a prescribed curriculum to follow? Explain. 

  • The curriculum I teach is mandated by the district, but I have control over how to teach the content. That is how it is in our reg. ed. ELA program. Do any of your teachers find that confining?
  • Autonomy as long as what I do is as good as or better than the course master units; for all teachers to access, like a buffet just began work to write entire curriculum using #OER, which I share on our blog
  • I am the only teacher who teaches 10th ELA in my district; so, I design my own curriculum 
  • My school creates its own curriculum, all focused on the environment. This year as literacy coach I’ll strengthen grades 7 & 8
  • We have prescribed curriculum: Springboard from the College Board
  • Create my own. Last summer I helped create a curriculum for my organization but the ball got dropped & it isn’t being used 
  • I design my own curriculum! Exciting but can make me anxious at times
  • I get complete freedom to choose whatever I want to teach in my classroom – as long as I address the CCSS 
  • The curriculum was just the skeleton. I have the freedom to teach whatever texts and topics I am/have been rewriting this summer 
  • I create my own curriculum using standards
  • We follow the reader’s and writer’s workshop model but can design how we choose to implement our units
  • We have district maps and PBAs but I develop all of my own lessons. My classroom is my aquarium 
  • Objectives are laid out; some flexibility in how to meet the objectives; choose novels from anchor text lists
  • My ELA department has great autonomy and is trying a new course progression this year: moving from surveys to skill-focused classes 
  • I am lucky enough to teach with my own curriculum. We tried Springboard last year but no more of that this year (yay!) 
  • Teachers at my school pretty much get free reign on curriculum, which is neat but scary at times
  • We have no required curriculum except CCSS. Working on a unified scope and sequence for this year, but freedom to choose resources
  • We use @jaymctighe‘s backward design for a lot of our curriculum and I have really enjoyed how it has changed my teaching!
  • Coming from a private school, I could do pretty much anything within reason, so I have come to enjoy LOTS of flexibility
  • Up until this year, I’ve been writing my own curriculum. Then came new adoption, HMS Collections.
  • Same here in terms of objective. That is pretty much absolute. All are free to create! 
  • We have maps but they are very general and genre-based. I have been trying to work around them and do things like PBL
  • Our county started Springboard but not all teachers wanted to follow it. We got Pearson online text 
  • For English 9 in teams trying to be horizontally aligned

Q2: What are the challenges of designing your own curriculum or having to follow a prescribed curriculum? 

  • A major challenge of following a prescribed curriculum = less freedom
  • Trying to use the prescribed curriculum in a blended class is tough. Pulling it apart to differentiate takes as much time as writing it! 
  • Coming up with multi-leveled/varied learning style activities #personalizedlearning is crucial in my class; love #OER for this 
  • Do you get in trouble with different grade levels wanting to use the same text?
  • Designing: time is the challenge! It takes a ton of time to research, align and write. Felt like a desk job this summer
  • Designing your own = where to start? Not knowing how much you’ll be able to cover. Can be overwhelming Following a prescribed = not being interesting to students or meeting them where they are. Constantly needing to adapt 
  • A major challenge for me is figuring out a curriculum for multi-graded classes
  • Challenges are making sometimes dry material interesting/engaging.
  • I think one of the hardest things for me is timing everything! Especially when students like units and want to explore more topics 
  • A prescribed curriculum does always meet the needs of your students. Teachers need autonomy 
  • The challenge of designing own is that sometimes it’s too many choices. Also, not having other content teachers to collaborate with 
  • Yes, we do. I’m a fan but it takes getting used to, and personal tweaking
  • When designing, you risk missing things or lacking the balance required (esp. when teaching it for the 1st time) 
  • Designing your own = time-consuming & stressful/overwhelming at times (even though I love/appreciate the freedom to design)
  • Also, second-guessing one’s self “Am I even doing this right” can be a struggle of designing own curriculum.  Reply: YES! I loved the freedom, but really missed the collaboration
  • Creating your own curriculum means taking risks which sometimes teachers are afraid to do… afraid to make mistakes and fail
  • I loved being able to use the “hot” texts when no curriculum. But I was also designing a new curriculum each year – a LOT of work! 
  • True, and keeping a good pacing schedule! 
  • Designing challenge: occasional parents oppose the content of some texts 
  • Challenging with autonomy to build perfectly in vertical. Department of 14 + middle school teachers need to collaborate & communicate lots 
  • It’s a College board curriculum…it definitely has the rigor but it’s not engaging. Workbooks = boring
  • Prescribed creates unit deadlines and interferes with rhythm and flow. Autonomy can overwhelm you with choices
  • Not being able to fully implement #bookwhisperer because of prescribed texts
  • The challenge this year will be how to work in those novels and units I love into a new adoption
  • It’s overwhelming with so much to fit in, not to mention bringing freshmen up to speed to high school expectations

Q3: What are the rewards of designing your own curriculum or having to follow a prescribed curriculum? 

  • While there is less freedom following a prescribed curriculum, the major benefit is collaborating with a great team on site
  • love how #OER fosters equal access to great materials. Sharing (& remixing & re-sharing!) is caring! #GoOpen
  • I collaborate with other content areas. That is helpful.
  • Creating my own curriculum means I can pick and choose according to students’ needs 
  • There’s a ton to fit with MS there’s a lot of data-driven instruction across disciplines which is time-consuming
  • Rewards are that it taught me reverse design. We begin the unit by explaining the assessment & then teach with the end in mind 
  • The biggest reward is the freedom I have & respect from admin to create my own
  • Designing your own = tailoring lessons to students’ interests and levels. Can always shift gears if something isn’t working. Following prescribed = not having to reinvent the wheel, having a starting point, knowing what’s expected especially when new 
  • I enjoyed having flexibility with the curriculum when I taught tech. Wasn’t able to do as much in ELA, but still could be creative
  • I like that I am able to select topics (especially nonfiction) that I know will engage the students in my own planned curriculum 
  • Challenges of own curriculum = overwhelming trying to fit everything in, constantly 2nd-guessing methods, collaborate across grade levels
  • Freedom to create means you don’t have to teach the same thing over and over. Can update materials with the times/student interest
  • It’s very difficult to find the right balance of interest and academics 
  • Since I design my own, I can go at the pace my students need = more/less time on concepts
  • The rewards of designing my own are that I can teach what I want as long as I’m hitting the standards! 😉 
  • Designing: creative freedom and not really having to report to anyone. We did it for ourselves, to save time and be prepared
  • With autonomy: such fabulous, personal satisfaction when lessons rock 🙂
  • I did a huge collaboration unit with science & history for Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; so fun! 
  • I love to experiment with strategies, texts, activities, so I have that freedom and I can include more student choice and input 
  • The rewards of the prescribed curriculum are less planning time. Not as much creativity though
  • Knowing that you taught your kiddos 100% the way YOU know is best for them…creating engaging, fun learning experiences
  • Also, collaboration a lot with history for The Things They Carried/Vietnam 
  • Rewards of own curriculum = creativity & freedom! Not stuck doing anything. Can change course & try new things 
  • I love designing my curriculum. Make connections between texts and skills. Relevancy for students & adapt for students needs
  • It means I can lean toward being a social justice teacher and not just an ELA teacher 

Q4: Describe your approach to planning a unit within your curriculum.

  • When planning, I work backward. I start with the goal and plan activities/lessons to get the students to where I want them 
  • 1) collaborate with team 2) EQs 3) end goal/project/process 4) standards 5) activities 6) small group lessons 7) whole-class lessons 8) create material
  • Love backward design & universal design. Always look for ways to personalize for each student, lots of data required to plan this way
  • First, we start with the standards then use the backward design model
  • I start with standards and goals then move to the topic. Trying to focus on summative
  • When planning, 1st think about the end goal then work backward to create activities and choose texts that lead to the end goal
  • Still trying to work out the best way to do this! I try to think about the end goal (product) & then the skills & knowledge required 
  • I tend to set big picture goals I would like to see the students be able to develop achieve and then work backward from there 
  • Start with novel and supplemental texts then CCSS and Performance Tasks, then activities to reach standards 
  • Identify main essential learnings, plan the assessment, and use backward design to prepare the unit from there
  • I start with the standards and novel/workbook/concept and search the internet for ideas or design my own and go from there
  • Of course, back design and standards but I always consider connections between texts and real-world issues
  • Start with standards and go backward. Plan form/summative assessments. Set a course then adjust constantly. 
  • I usually “chunk” my units into many pieces but I do try to focus on varied repetition to reach different students 
  • 1st, I need a calendar. I need to see the days in front of me. Then, I need to look at what I want to teach & standards 
  • We also make sure all of our units integrate reading and writing
  • Integrating technology has become an important aspect of planning units 

Q5: What advice would you give to teachers struggling to plan a unit or an entire curriculum? 

  • Advice: Don’t be afraid to change direction mid-class if something isn’t working. Don’t stick with a failing plan 
  • This year I’ll use a standards tracker as I plan to make sure I loop back through & make sure I don’t miss anything 
  • It can be overwhelming, but really fine-tuning how your units build on one another is essential. Never lose sight of that! 
  • Yes! Ours too… we needed to revamp and bring our units into the 21st century
  • I am a theme-based teacher, so after I work backward, I try to fit novel/concept/skill into the overall theme.  Reply: From there you can begin to plan units knowing you aren’t overlapping from one year to next but building
  • I think this is a major weakness in the prescribed curriculum – trying to make current events fit. Doesn’t always work
  • I have a similar process with being a global theme school. I try to focus on exploring the plights of individuals
  • Start with one unit at a time and have a list of standards 
  • Do a little Googling, not too much. You can get sucked down the internet rabbit hole & distracted from what you want to teach. Don’t be afraid to ask someone else how they’ve taught it.  
  • I’d say take it little by little, reach out for support, and use tools like  so you have it for next year
  • Use primary sources whenever possible
  • See @librarycongress@fordstheatre @SILibraries for starters
  • Set goals that can be linked to other units so there’s scaffolding. That way you don’t try to cover too much in one unit 
  • Start with what you want your students to know/master and work backward from there
  • Start with one unit at a time. Have someone you can collaborate with while you plan the unit. 
  • I’m always Googling, Pinterest-ing, Diigo-ing, and TPT-ing 🙂 
  • Find texts you’re passionate about. Consider the “big picture” and takeaways. What will students remember and use? 
  • Re-evaluate frequently. You may LOVE a text, but if it isn’t working for students, a change is better than losing their interest 
  • Switch directions if something isn’t working & use something to track what standards you’ve addressed – checklist or program 
  • Print off objectives and write all over the sheets. Take notes about how your students will meet each one. Brainstorm! 
  • Look to great ELA colleagues and gurus (Jim Burke, Nancy Dean, Kelly Gallagher, etc.) Then, don’t be afraid to try/fail/tweak 
  • I agree. Frequent reflection is SO important (but hard to find the time for mid-year!!!) 
  • Consider multiple approaches to the task, skill, etc. Variety is the spice of curriculum
  • There are tons of ideas out there. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Don’t be afraid to adapt ideas to fit into your unit 
  • Plan out scope and seq with std for a year, plan your first unit(s), then adjust. Going to check out  now.
  • Don’t take on too much. I tried to write too many units this summer. It’s overwhelming and easy to lose motivation 
  • We’ve done a lot of work trying to make tasks with authentic audiences. Fun to see students engagement go up when they “care” 
  • Also, ask your students! Best gurus of their own learning 
  • Know what teachers in grades before & after are teaching to try and map out the skills especially those with the freedom to design 
  • We are partners with OSU and Literacy Collaborative. LC is new to middle school. Fountas and Pinnell based curriculum

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